Tenn. School Must Stop Censoring Students for Supporting LGBT Rights

School officials in Savannah, Tenn., must stop censoring students, the Southern Poverty Law Center said today, or face a federal lawsuit on behalf of a student who was prevented from supporting equality and respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“Students’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression do not stop at the school house gate,” said Sam Wolfe, staff attorney for the SPLC’s LGBT rights project. “Public schools are not totalitarian enclaves where school officials may ban speech they dislike. Students are better prepared as citizens in schools where fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, are exercised and not merely taught as abstract concepts that might apply at some distant time or some other place.”

A letter sent to the Hardin County Board of Education and Hardin County High School warns that if school officials don’t take meaningful action to remedy the violations, the SPLC will file a federal lawsuit on behalf of Isabella Nuzzo, who will be a senior at the high school. School officials have been asked to confirm by June 12, the day after the next school board meeting, that they have rescinded their practice of unlawfully censoring student speech.

Isabella Nuzzo
The letter was prompted after Isabella and other students at Hardin County High School were told by an assistant principal that they could not display slogans and symbols supportive of LGBT students, including rainbows, claiming such symbols and slogans “advertise or promote sex.” The assistant principal also forced students to terminate a student-organized “Week of Pride” intended to show support for their LGBT classmates and threatened the students with suspension, class failure and even disqualification from graduation.

“I and many other students were really upset with the school for shutting down free speech about a topic I feel strongly about,” Isabella said. “I love my gay friends and life is hard enough without being judged for who you are or for believing in equality.”

Students organized the Week of Pride in support of a fellow student who was disciplined in April for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Lesbian and Proud” as part of the national Day of Silence. The Day of Silence is a national event that raises awareness about the harassment and bullying of LGBT youth. Numerous students participated in the week before it was terminated by wearing clothing of a certain color, or by displaying rainbows or slogans such as “Bisexual and Proud” and “GLBT” (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender) accompanied by a rainbow.

The letter notes that in a nearly identical case, a federal court ruled that a Florida school board could not ban students from wearing pro-gay symbols or slogans, such as rainbows and pink triangles on buttons, stickers, signs, notebooks, or T-shirts. The school district was also ordered to pay $325,000 for the student's attorneys' fees.

With the letter sent today, the SPLC seeks assurance that “Isabella and all other students within the district may peacefully display non-vulgar expressions in support of LGBT people through petitions and observances… or by displaying pro-LGBT symbols or slogans.” By preventing students from expressing their views about LGBT rights, the school is censoring students in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“All students – including LGBT students – have rights at school,” Wolfe said. “When a government actor such as a school administrator targets a specific group for discrimination, that is an affront to the rights of everyone. By standing for justice, Isabella deserves our admiration and respect and the SPLC will fiercely advocate for her rights.”

The SPLC is dedicated to defending the rights of the LGBT community. The SPLC works to ensure a safe and respectful learning environment for all students – including LGBT students – through educational campaigns and legal action.